Dave Heineman served Nebraska for 10 years as governor, and even longer in other positions. For many who know him solely as governor, his identity is tied to his long political career. But strip away the title and he’s just a man from rural Nebraska who set out years ago, chasing his dream job.
He was born in Falls City, Nebraska, one of four children and the son of a store manager for J.C. Penny’s. Because of his father’s job the family hopped from city to city; Falls City, Fairbury, McCook, Benkelman, finally settling in Wahoo when he was in sixth grade. Governor Heineman looks back on his years of growing up in rural Nebraska fondly.
“During the summer, what better could you have than what we had? We went out and played golf all day long and American Legion Baseball at night.”
After graduating from high school he earned a spot at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“I never dreamed, growing up in small town Nebraska, I was going to have the opportunity to go to West Point,” he said.
He graduated four years later, served in the U.S. Army for five more, then returned home to Nebraska. He worked in the private sector for Procter & Gamble for a few years. But an interest in public service planted during his time at West Point had taken root. He wanted to get involved but had no idea how.
“I was in Omaha at the time. I went down to the Douglas County Republican Party headquarters. And Hal Daub, later mayor, congressman, now Board of Regents in Omaha, was county chairman. And that’s how I got started,” he said.
It was over that same weekend that he met his wife Sally.
“We met on Labor Day weekend, we were engaged by Thanksgiving and got married the following May. So I always said you had a decisive governor.”
For years, he served in local and federal level positions in government–including Executive Director of the Nebraska Republican Party, and as Chief of Staff for Congressmen Harold Daub in Washington D.C. He then returned to Nebraska and served on Fremont City Council from 1990 to 1994 before running for and winning the office of State Treasurer.
All the while, he had a dream of serving as the state’s leader.
“My wife would tell you, I always told her, if I had a chance the dream job would be to be the governor of this state.”
After seven years as the State Treasurer, he got one step closer. Mike Johanns appointed him lieutenant governor when Dave Maustad left to take a position in the George Bush Administration. They ran together in 2002 and were reelected. It was during his first full term as lieutenant governor that Senator (then governor) Johanns was asked to serve as Secretary of Agriculture by President Bush. Suddenly Governor Heineman found himself at the threshold of a new position.
“Oh, wow now you’re going to be the governor,” he thought.
Governor Heineman says the mid-term assumption of office was daunting, but working alongside his mentor, Senator Mike Johanns prepared him.
“He let me sit in on every meeting, fully prepared me to take over.”
Governor Heineman won reelection in 2006 and again four years later. In January 2015, he left the office he’d occupied for ten years as the longest serving governor the state of Nebraska has ever had.
He’s now enjoying some time off with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. He continues to preach what he found to ring true during his time as governor:
“Find your passion in life. For everybody, it’s different. For me, it was public service. For my wife, it was education. My son’s in business. Find what your passion is and every day will be rewarding. Every day will be worthwhile.”